Stories tagged government


One man, one vote.: But how those votes are counted can lead to some surprisingly complex mathematics.
One man, one vote.: But how those votes are counted can lead to some surprisingly complex mathematics.Courtesy Theresa Thompson

Winston Churchill once quipped, "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Though said tongue-in-cheek, a recent article in New Scientist shows that, mathematically at least, Winnie was on to something.

Every election has winners and losers. Different countries have different systems for determining the winners, and dealing with the losers. And, it turns out, each of those systems has mathematical quirks which prevent the results from perfectly matching the will of the people.

  • The "winner-take-all" system used in America is certainly very simple and straight-forward. The problem is, the thousands--or even millions--of people who voted for the losing candidate end up with no elected official representing their views. (In the recent British elections, the Liberal Democratic party won 23% of all individual votes cast, but ended up with less than 9% of the seats in Parliament.) And in a race with three or more candidates, you can get a winner who carries less than 50% of the vote.
  • Some countries get around this by using "proportional representation:" they count votes cast for each political party, rather than for individual candidates, and divvy up the legislature that way. The voters' voice is fairly represented. But if one party controls more than half the seats, it can effectively shut the minor parties out. And if no party has a majority, they end up sharing power in ways that do not reflect their numbers. (Again, the British elections are a good example. The leading Conservative Party won 37% of the vote and 47% of the seats--not quite enough for a majority. They may form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties would share power 50%-50%--quite a boon for the LibDems, who control only 9% of the seats!)
  • A few countries have tried "ordered voting," in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference, and then conducting run-offs until someone gets 50% of the vote. But this can lead to a strange situation where nobody wins!
  • And dividing the electorate into districts can shift power in unexpected ways. (We had a Buzz exhibit last year explaining how the Electoral College redistributes power.)

In 1963, American economist Kenneth Arrow considered all these quirks and tried to describe the perfect voting system. He then proved that it was mathematically impossible. (Of course, this assumes the system he described really is perfect--I'm not so sure.)

It seems to me, though, that the problem isn't with democracy, but rather with representative democracy. The people of Minnesota elect only one governor, only one senator (at a time). And there's no way one person is going to perfectly reflect public opinion--be 53% in favor of issue A and 61% opposed to issue B. And even if they were, they still have to make a series of yes-or-no decisions, and be either 100% for 100% against any given bill.

The only way to have a perfect democracy is to have everybody vote on every issue, a system that would be far too cumbersome to work. Churchill was right: democracy is messy, but it's the best thing we've got.

I approve this message
I approve this messageCourtesy Dave Schumaker
In a speech delivered to the National Academy of Sciences today, President Obama stated that he was setting a goal to devote more than 3% of the country's gross domestic product to scientific research and development. 3% of the GDP is about $420 billion.

I think this is all meant to take place over the course of the next ten years, but, still, I'm into it. We're all going to live for a thousand years, which is awesome, because we're going to want plenty of time to fly around on our personal laser-powered, smile-fueled, robo dragons.


A quick guide to practical mutilation: I hear it's all about lips and anus, but, really, I'm more of a sirloin kind of guy.
A quick guide to practical mutilation: I hear it's all about lips and anus, but, really, I'm more of a sirloin kind of guy.Courtesy Ysangkok
Hey, some of this post is pretty really gross, so skip it if you’re some kind of baby, okay?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never given cattle mutilation much thought. I don’t mean that I simply haven’t considered the ups and downs of mutilation, rather that I’ve barely considered it at all.

I know, I know. We’re practically wading our way to work through piles of dead, mutilated cattle, and here I am thinking about TGIF programming, archery, and mustard (or whatever—sometimes I think about other things too, just not cattle mutilation). This, people, is why the most important problems out there never get solved; because we’re all too focused on little things like traffic safety. Well, today at least, I’ll be doing my part to let y’all in the rural Da Vinci Code: cattle mutilation (of course).

What brings cattle mutilation to mind today, of all days, on this sunny Friday? Because those lousy bovine molesters have struck again, this time in sleepy, innocent Saskatchewan.

Last week, outside the village of Stockholm, Saskatchewan, a farmer awoke to find one of her cows dead and mutilated just yards away from her house. Missing its rectum, genitals, navel, udder, lips, tongue, one eye, and one ear, the unfortunate animal could perhaps best be described as “yucky.” Said farmer Harris to her husband, “you don’t even want to see this.”

Was Mrs. Harris right? My sources say no: very probably Mr. Harris did indeed want to see the horribly abused animal outside his house.

A local veterinarian believed the incisions on the cow “took a little bit of skill,” and may have been done with an electric cautery unit, as no blood was found on the scene. In addition to the lack of blood, the scene showed no evidence of a struggle, nor were there any footprints or tire tracks nearby.

What is to be made of this? Difficult to say, but it may be time look behind us. Not for sneaky cattle mutilators, but at history.

Like the Internet, cattle mutilation is a relatively new invention. It’s not certain if this is because our ancestors lacked the necessary tools, or just the imagination. Whatever the reason, this particular brand of animal abuse didn’t surface until the 1960s, when reports of grotesquely mutilated animals (mostly cows) began coming out of the states of Kansas and Pennsylvania (until this point, we had always been pretty kind to cattle). By the mid 70s, cattle mutilation was being reported in 15 states, from North Dakota to Texas, and in 1975 a senator from Colorado, Floyd K Haskell (married to Nina Totenberg, if you can believe it), contacted the FBI to look into the problem, claiming that there had been 130 mutilations in his state alone. The FBI actually did complete an investigation on cattle mutilations, dubbed “Operation Animal Mutilation,” in 1979—more on that in a moment.

The details of reported cattle mutilations vary from case to case, but certain characteristics seem to be quite consistent:

  • The removal of eyes, udders and sexual organs
  • The removal of the anus to a depth of around 12 inches
  • The removal of the tongue and/or lips
  • The removal of one ear
  • The striping of hide and flesh from the jaw and the area directly beneath the ear
  • The removal of soft organs from the lower body
  • The presence of incisions and cuts across the body that appear to have been made by a surgical instrument
  • Unexplained damage to remaining organs, but no sign of damage to surrounding area
  • A lack of predation signs (teethmarks, tearing of skin or flesh, animal footprints)on or around the carcass
  • Lack of scavenging

Mutilation of the eye, tongue, genitals, and rectum seem to be the most common characteristics. Also, the animals are often, but not always, drained of blood.

Oh, man.

Who’s mutilating these cowsies? Aliens, obviously, right? Well, if you consider the little research that’s been done on cattle mutilations, aliens are probably the least satisfying answer. What?! I know.

The 1979 FBI investigation concluded, for instance, that the mutilations were “predominately the result of natural predation, but that some contained anomalies that could not be accounted for by conventional wisdom.” “Anomalies” are kind of spooky, but mostly what the feds were talking about falls in line with the opinions of many scientists, veterinarians, and agricultural workers: missing or damaged organs are explained by dehydration, tissue contraction, and the actions of scavenging insects and burrowing parasites; missing eyes are due to bowflies and carrion birds; absence of blood is accounted for by pooling in low points in the body and insect consumption; and the “surgical incisions” are actually tears in the skin and flesh caused by bloating and/or dehydration.


Another school of thought is that “deviant activity” is behind the mutilations; those mutilations that cannot be explained by animal predation are likely caused by deviants who “derive pleasure or sexual stimulation from mutilating animals.” As much as we want to avoid picturing this in our minds, these sorts of attacks are pretty well documented phenomena. They are generally focused on family pets, and are usually not quite so “creative” as most cases of cattle mutilation. However, occasionally deviant attacks are directed at larger animals, like cows or horses, and individuals with sociopathic disorders are known to have mutilated animals in much more elaborate ways, sometimes using surgical instruments.

Cults have also been blamed for the phenomenon, but I feel like I’ve already written a little too much on this post, so I’m not going to get into it.

Then, of course, you have the government conspiracy theories, which are awesome. There’s some thought, by some people, that many of the mutilations occur near nuclear test sights, and that the cattle are actually dissection subjects to determine accumulated levels of radioactive materials in soft tissues. Mutilations nowhere near testing sites are, naturally, control subjects, or red herrings. Government conspiracy theories also involve black helicopters, radiation weapons, lasers, and mad cow disease. Love it, but, you know… can’t the government buy its own cows? No, forget it, whatever.

And finally, of course, aliens. We all know that it’s aliens. They’re mutilating cattle to, um, gather genetic material. It begs the question “What’s so special about cows that you’d travel across the galaxy to gather their genetic material? Because I’ve just been eating them. Also, you know you can get genetic material from anywhere on their bodies, right? You don’t have to cut out their anuses. You seriously were able to build a spaceship?”

Any strong feelings about cattle mutilation out there? Anyone want to defend the aliens? Did anyone read this whole post? Bleh.